The Gospel of Mark makes little sense if read as literal history or biography. For example, Jesus is said to have explained to his disciples that he talks in incomprehensible mysteries to the general public in order to deliver divine punishment upon them, not to educate and save them.
And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parables.
And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables:
that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them.
That last verse is a quotation from Isaiah 6. That Isaiah passage speaks of judgment that involves the destruction of the cities of the land of Israel, and from which only a tiny remnant will escape to become the new people of God. It is, of course, nonsense to imagine that Jesus could have always spoken incomprehensibly in public and still have gathered a following of any kind.
(Anyone who has read Henrik Tronier’s Philonic Allegory in Mark* will read nothing new in this post. This post is a simplified repeat of one section of his Tronier’s article, with a slightly modified twist at the end.) [* link downloads a 264 KB PDF file. Source: http://www.pitts.emory.edu/hmpec/docs/TronierPhilonicAllegoryMark.pdf]
But notice that the Isaiah passage speaks of both seeing and hearing, not just hearing. And the words attributed to Jesus are that all things are “done” in parables for the outsiders. We are entitled to think that both actions and words fail to be understood by “outsiders”. And that is just what the preceding verses have demonstrated.
Much earlier, as early as Mark 3:9, the readers of the gospel are prepared for the scene of Jesus delivering parables from the boat in the “sea” of Galilee:
And he spake to his disciples, that a little boat should wait on him because of the crowd, lest they should throng him . . .
Before that moment of need, however, Jesus, like Moses, ascended a mountain, and called to him twelve to be with him and to be sent out to preach. Author and comprehending readers are clearly aware of the Old Testament associations of God calling from mountains to establish his own holy people to be apart from all others.
Then just prior to the chapter on parables the Gospel presents one of its double/bracketed narratives, a narrative about scribes from Jerusalem who believe that Jesus’ miracles, particularly exorcisms, are performed by the power of Satan. Jesus pronounces that these blind accusers will never be forgiven.
but whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin: because they said, He hath an unclean spirit. (Mark 3:29-30)
This narrative is bracketed by another that concludes that Jesus’ natural family and associates are not his “real” family. His blood kin are declared to be outsiders — on the outside and without access to him:
And there come his mother and his brethren; and, standing without, they sent unto him, calling him.
And a multitude was sitting about him; and they say unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.
And he answereth them, and saith, Who is my mother and my brethren?
And looking round on them that sat round about him, he saith, Behold, my mother and my brethren!
For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.
The narratives are structured as a couplet. Readers are signalled to interpret or understand one through the other. Together, they signal that outsiders fail to understand the things Jesus does. Representative of Jerusalem, the Law, think Jesus is empowered by the Devil; blood kin think he is out of his mind, crazy — not particularly different from being possessed. (We later learn that his brothers are named Jacob, Joseph, Judah and Simeon: “the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past”, comparable to a family of Olsens being given names Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin, according to Paula Fredriksen in Jesus of Nazareth, p. 240.)
This narrative doublet announces that the traditional Jewish claims to a special status with God — the law (Jerusalem) and blood (family descent) — are insufficient to enable them to understand Jesus. The Jews are left without forgiveness, and remain outsiders in relation to the new people of God, the real community of Jesus, that was signalled with the calling of the twelve on the Sinai-like mountain.
So when we return to that boat that had been called for way back in Mark 3:9, we find Jesus “sitting in the sea” speaking in parables so that the masses who are separated from Jesus on the land cannot understand him.
And again he began to teach by the sea side. And there is gathered unto him a very great multitude, so that he entered into a boat, and sat in the sea; and all the multitude were by the sea on the land.
The sea becomes the way of Jesus and his disciples for bridging Jews and Gentiles. Miracles are performed in doublets: those performed in Jewish areas are performed again across the sea in Gentile lands.
But Jesus says that those who are on the outside do not understand either his words that they hear or his deeds that they see:
. . . unto them that are without, all things are done in parables:
that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand
Here Jesus says that even the things he does, his exorcisms, his exclusion of his blood family, are parables.
Those who are the outsiders are not only the Jews, but also those from Idumea, beyond Jordan, Tyre and Sidon — that is, the Gentiles — are as much outsiders as those from Galilee and Jerusalem:
And Jesus with his disciples withdrew to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and from Judaea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumaea, and beyond the Jordan, and about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, hearing what great things he did, came unto him. And he spake to his disciples, that a little boat should wait on him because of the crowd, lest they should throng him . . . (Mark 3:7-9)
Henrik Tronier does not question the historicity of Jesus. Such a suggestion is certainly not made in his article, and it is quite possible to think that Mark wrote a parabolic narrative about the words and deeds of Jesus without denying that there was a historical Jesus nonetheless. Tronier writes:
Mark is a text about hermeneutics in the form of the proper understanding of Christ, which is developed in allegorical form at the same time as it maintains the basic historicity of the story, just as Philo did.
The historicity that Philo maintained was that of Abraham and Moses.
My own view is that if the deeds and words of Jesus were done and said to confuse or mystify outsiders, and that even the twelve disciples in this Gospel proved themselves to be outsiders by the end, having betrayed and denied their Master before men, then what basis do we have left for even asking if those same deeds and words were historical?
Jesus cannot even be said to be a true human in this Gospel. He is introduced to readers as being possessed by the Spirit of God as it fell from heaven torn apart. Readers are informed that from this moment Jesus is now the Son of God. This Spirit then casts him out into the wilderness where he engages with Satan and is sustained by angels. So the reader knows that Jesus is not a man, but God in a man. No-one else in the narrative ever knows this. Jesus stilling the storm demonstrates to readers that Jesus is the manifestation of the power of God at creation when the forces of chaos were subdued with a word, a theme that is repeated in several subsequent narratives (Exodus, Elisha, Jonah) and appears several times in the Psalms and Job. Peter’s “confession” that Jesus is the Christ is on a par with the understanding of the demons who also acknowledge this. Jesus soon afterwards calls him Satan when it is apparent that he misconstrues the Christ as a conquering king instead of a suffering servant. Hence his denial of even knowing Jesus at the moment of his trial.
Jesus ambiguously tells his disciples in his parable chapter that the mystery of the kingdom had been given to them, but Matthew and Luke were disturbed enough by the ambiguity to change that to having Jesus declaring that the disciples “understood” that mystery. But Mark nowhere says this much.
And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables (Mark 4:9)
Compare Matthew 13:11 (and Luke 8:10)
And he answered and said unto them, Unto you it is given to know (ginosko) the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
We may conclude that others in Mark’s day recognized some of what Mark saying and did not like it.
The Gospel narrative proceeds to follow well-recognized patterns of numerology, ‘topography, geography, travels, spatial markers and personifications.’ These are not the normal cues indicative of historical narratives. They speak of fiction. If such patterns are found in a story that is structured along lines very similar to the structures found in Hellenistic novels, poems and plays rather than those that more usually belong to works of history (even ancient historiography) — and I believe that is the case with Mark’s Gospel — then surely it is foolishness to even think the Gospel can be mined for anything “historical” at all.
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